July 19, 2012

Steve Solloway: Maine's race remains a main race

By Steve Solloway ssolloway@pressherald.com
Columnist

Dave Dion, Bob Pressley, Geoff Bodine, Junior Hanley: The names of past TD Bank 250 champions tumble from Ben Ashline's mouth. Never mind that Ashline wasn't born when three of the four won.

click image to enlarge

Ben Ashline understands the tradition that goes with the TD Bank 250. And on Sunday, he’ll be among the drivers trying to win it.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

"I know the names of the winners," said Ashline, a TD Bank 250 entrant who is all of 21. The stock car race that is Maine's biggest summertime spectator event was first run 38 years ago at Oxford Plains Speedway.

"To be able to put my name on that list would mean everything to me. Those drivers are the people I look up to."

What, you thought this race lost its relevance years ago? That today's sophisticated world had bypassed a Sunday afternoon and evening of watching hours of racing and hundreds of laps at a hot and dusty rural track?

Go talk to one of the hundred or so drivers who have a 50-50 chance of being one of the 43 cars to start the 250-lap race. Doesn't matter if it's a veteran like Tim Brackett of Buckfield, who'll be joined by his son, T.J., and daughter, Vanna, in the qualifying heats. Or 18-year-old Austin Theriault, who just graduated from Fort Kent High in June.

Winning the TD Bank 250 couldn't be more relevant. That first place can come with a $50,000 payday, depending on the bonus for laps led, is important, of course. No amount of money can buy the prestige of being known as a TD Bank 250 champion.

"Every racer comes to the track to win," said Ashline, from the small rural town of Pittston, near Gardiner. "And winning this race can mean everything. It's so hard to do."

He was 8 years old when he came to Oxford Plains Speedway for the first time with his extended family, camping near the gate to the back pits. He awoke to the sight of dozens of big rigs belonging to race teams, lined up at the gate and carrying the race car and equipment.

He saw the names of the drivers painted in large script or block letters on the sides of the trucks. Drivers like Mike Rowe and his son, Benji. Tracy Gordon, Dale Shaw and Brad Leighton. Local drivers who were kings. To Ashline, those names had the same impact as Dale Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon or Rusty Wallace.

The year was 1998 or 1999. Ashline remembers that Racin' Ralph Nason of Unity won. But then, Nason won three years in a row.

During those years, fans would walk in front of the grandstands with cardboard signs: Nason (stinks)! Ashline smiles. He wasn't one of them.

As a kid, Ashline told his father he would one day win the first heat race and start the TD Bank 250 in the first position. Last summer, Ashline did exactly that and his family did get emotional. He has qualified for each of the past three races, finishing 25th, 26th and 30th. He learned something from each race. He's more confident this year.

So is Theriault, the recent high school graduate who has the poise of someone twice his age. He finished third last year to the winner, Kyle Busch, the NASCAR Sprint Cup star. The schoolboy from Aroostook County and the veteran driver from Nevada talked a little during the postrace interviews and after.

Theriault can dream but not when he's in the race car. Running third to Busch happened on one night on a one-third mile oval track that was very familiar to Theriault. It was his classroom for the day and he understands that. He sits down to another test Sunday.

Brackett faces tests of another sort. His son, T.J., has experience qualifying for and racing in the TD Bank 250. Vanna Brackett has neither. The family will be very happy if she simply becomes one of the 43 cars to start the big race.

It's possible father and daughter could draw for starting positions in the same heat race. Can dad forget that she's on the track with him? "Absolutely," said Brackett. There's too little time to blink, let alone worry about a daughter trying to fend off the car behind her and hold her position.

"I once had Ricky Craven beating on my rear bumper in the non-qualifiers' race," said Brackett, recalling the young driver who left Maine for a Sprint Cup career. "It was 1988. I didn't get in (the TD Bank 250). That is a hard track to get around. You can't be thinking of something else."

You can't even think of winning. Until it happens. Relevant? Oh yes. 

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

 

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